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Eboo Patel discusses faith

By Morgan Nguyen, The Miami Student

Miami University hosted a discussion about interfaith leadership and philosophical diversity on Tuesday.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, spoke about the importance of being fluent in religious diversity issues today.

He stressed the benefit of being aware of others' religious backgrounds and traditions, highlighting how cultivating that knowledge can help strengthen everyday interactions.

"There is positive creativity at the interaction of different religious traditions," Patel said.

Patel was raised in a Muslim Indian family outside of Chicago, and began college as a self-described angry activist at the University of Illinois. He spent his weekends volunteering at local shelters, but had his "ah-ha" moment while visiting the Catholic Worker House for the first time.

"I was struck by how they served with such conviction and gentleness," Patel said. "To the disappointment of immigrant parents who expected a Yale Law School graduate, I spent the summer working with the Catholic worker movement up and down the East coast."

Patel was amazed he could identify with ethics and service from a different tradition, yet feel no need to convert. His interest in interfaith cooperation was born out of that experience.

He pursued a doctorate in the sociology of religion at University of Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Patel is currently working with his Interfaith Youth Core to make interfaith collaboration a social norm.

He has been named by US News & World Report as one of America's Best Leaders of 2009, and served on President Obama's Inaugural Faith Council. He works with governments, social sector organizations and college campuses to help form the view of religion as a bridge of cooperation and a foundation for service.

He began his remarks by sharing five case studies of how such religious traditions and identities play out in everyday civic life: athletics, law enforcement, medicine, business and diplomacy.

For example, last fall an NFL player was given a yellow flag for excessive celebration when he bent in Muslim prayer after scoring a touchdown, but no one flinched when Tim Tebow knelt in prayer.

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Patel asserted this isn't due to "anti-Muslim" bigotry, but rather a lack of awareness of Muslim tradition and what prayer looks like.

Junior Ifeolu Claytor attended the discussion, and said he learned a lot from it.

"I think the most important take-away point from Eboo's talk was being conscious of religion, regardless of what profession you're in," said Claytor. "It will affect your respective field. Period."

A major point Patel discussed is the disconnect between religion and conflict resolution, whether that be conflicts of violence or philosophy.

Patel says international conflicts that are often charged with religious ideals are not resolved with a religious perspective in mind. Patel elevates service and awareness of religious diversity as the bridge between religions.

"America is the most religiously diverse and devout nation in a time of religious world conflict," Patel said. "If American religious diversity is to be characterized by bridges of cooperation as opposed to bunkers of isolation, we need to build them [bridges]. And to do that we must be able to engage in religious diversity."

Patel shared that a good portion of his work is done on college campuses.

"This is where young people form their identities and acquire knowledge base and skill set to make it a reality," he said.

He said college students can develop a knowledge base of interfaith cooperation in four ways.

First, having an interfaith radar screen and being aware of possibilities for collaboration. Second, learning the history of religious persecution and pluralism to give context to current issues. Third, developing an appreciative knowledge of different traditions. Lastly, understanding the theology or ethic of interfaith cooperation - why does religion matter to you?

Many student leaders of faith-based organizations attended the dinner with Patel and lecture that followed.

"[I learned that] consciousness arises from interacting with other faiths," said Zaheer Choudhury, president of Muslim Students Association. "We can advance as a person, if when we come across divisions, we spend more time stressing similarities than differences."

Nik Levinsohn, president of Miami's Jewish organization called Hillel, sees a lot of room for Miami's religious organizations to work together.

"We're extremely lucky to be on a campus where there isn't a lot of religious opposition," Levinsohn said. "That creates an opportunity to be proactive and cooperative."

Overall, Patel's discussion was well received.

"At dinner, he talked about his unique experiences [with a Catholic workers group] that led him to pursue interfaith work," Choudhury said. "That was neat. You don't hear about moments that strike someone that much too often."

Choudury also echoed Patel's point - people can adopt an ethic or idea from another religion without necessarily converting.

It's this sharing of religious identity and ideas that Patel promotes through his interfaith work.

"There is a beautiful resonance between religious traditions that is born out of mutually inclusive conversations, " he said. "That's why I'm committed to interfaith cooperation."